Occupational and environmental lung diseases are difficult to distinguish from those of nonenvironmental origin. Virtually all major categories of pulmonary disease can be caused by environmental agents, and environmentally related disease usually presents clinically in a manner indistinguishable from that of disease not caused by such agents. In addition, the etiology of many diseases may be multifactorial; occupational and environmental factors may interact with other factors (such as smoking and genetic risk). It is often only after a careful exposure history is taken that the underlying workplace or general environmental exposure is uncovered.
Why is knowledge of occupational or environmental etiology so important? Patient management and prognosis are affected significantly by such knowledge. For example, patients with occupational asthma or hypersensitivity pneumonitis often cannot be managed adequately without cessation of exposure to the offending agent. Establishment of cause may have significant legal and financial implications for a patient who no longer can work in his or her usual job. Other exposed people may be identified as having the disease or prevented from getting it. In addition, new associations between exposure and disease may be identified (e.g., nylon flock worker's lung disease and diacetyl-induced bronchiolitis obliterans).
Although the exact proportion of lung disease due to occupational and environmental factors is unknown, a large number of individuals are at risk. For example, 15–20% of the burden of adult asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) has been estimated to be due to occupational factors.
History and Physical Examination
The patient's history is of paramount importance in assessing any potential occupational or environmental exposure. Inquiry into specific work practices should include questions about the specific contaminants involved, the presence of visible dusts, chemical odors, the size and ventilation of workspaces, the use of respiratory protective equipment, and whether co-workers have similar complaints. The temporal association of exposure at work and symptoms may provide clues to occupation-related disease. In addition, the patient must be questioned about alternative sources of exposure to potentially toxic agents, including hobbies, home characteristics, exposure to secondhand smoke, and proximity to traffic or industrial facilities. Short-term and long-term exposures to potential toxic agents in the distant past also must be considered.
Workers in the United States have the right to know about potential hazards in their workplaces under federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. Employers must provide specific information about potential hazardous agents in products being used through Material Safety Data Sheets as well as training in personal protective equipment and environmental control procedures. Reminders posted in the workplace may warn workers about hazardous substances. However, the introduction of new processes and/or new chemical compounds may change exposure significantly, and often only the employee on the production line is aware of the change. For the physician caring for a patient with a suspected work-related illness, a visit to the work site can be very instructive. Alternatively, an affected worker can request an inspection by OSHA.
The physical examination of patients with environmentally related lung diseases may help determine the nature and severity of the pulmonary condition but usually does not contribute information that points to a specific etiology.
Pulmonary Function Tests and Chest Imaging
Exposures to inorganic and organic dusts can cause interstitial lung disease that presents with a restrictive pattern and a decreased diffusing capacity (Chap. 252). Similarly, exposures to a number of organic dusts or chemical agents may result in occupational asthma or COPD that is characterized by airway obstruction. Measurement of change in forced expiratory volume (FEV1) before and after a working shift can be used to detect an acute bronchoconstrictive response. For example, an acute decrement of FEV1 over the first work shift of the week is a characteristic feature of cotton textile workers with byssinosis (an obstructive airway disorder with features of both asthma and chronic bronchitis).
The chest radiograph is useful in detecting and monitoring the pulmonary response to mineral dusts, certain metals, and organic dusts capable of inducing hypersensitivity pneumonitis. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) International Classification of Radiographs of Pneumoconioses classifies chest radiographs by the nature and size of opacities seen and the extent of involvement of the parenchyma. In general, small rounded opacities are seen in silicosis or coal worker's pneumoconiosis and small linear opacities are seen in asbestosis. The profusion of such opacities is rated by using a 12-point scheme. Although useful for epidemiologic studies and screening large numbers of workers, the ILO system can be problematic when applied to an individual worker's chest radiograph. With dusts causing rounded opacities, the degree of involvement on the chest radiograph may be extensive, whereas pulmonary function may be only minimally impaired. In contrast, in pneumoconiosis causing linear, irregular opacities like those seen in asbestosis, the radiograph may lead to underestimation of the severity of the impairment until relatively late in the disease. For patients with a history of asbestos exposure, conventional computed tomography (CT) is more sensitive for the detection of pleural thickening and high-resolution CT (HRCT) improves the detection of asbestosis.
Other procedures that may be of use in identifying the role of environmental exposures in causing lung disease include evaluation of heavy metal concentrations in urine (cadmium in battery plant workers), skin prick testing or specific IgE antibody titers for evidence of immediate hypersensitivity to agents capable of inducing occupational asthma (flour antigens in bakers), specific IgG precipitating antibody titers for agents capable of causing hypersensitivity pneumonitis (pigeon antigen in bird handlers), and assays for specific cell-mediated immune responses (beryllium lymphocyte proliferation testing in nuclear workers or tuberculin skin testing in health care workers). Sometimes a bronchoscopy to obtain transbronchial biopsies of lung tissue may be required for histologic diagnosis (chronic beryllium disease). Rarely, video-assisted thoracoscopic surgery to obtain a larger sample of lung tissue may ...